Fears of Fentanyl: Legalized test strip distribution underway in Arizona as synthetic opioid crisis rages on

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed a bill in 2021 legalizing test strips that can detect fentanyl in drugs as the state has a front-row seat to the opioid crisis and the wave of fentanyl pouring into the country.

Law enforcement says the southern border is the gateway.

A spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Health Services says a $100,000 federal opioid grant was key to delivering fentanyl test strips to several participating counties. The purpose of the strip is to be an overdose prevention tool, a lifesaver for those who do use drugs.

Nick Baker survived a fentanyl overdose in September 2017.

"When I get to the hospital, they tell my parents, ‘We can’t keep his heart going. We don’t know what he took, and you should get his affairs in order, and it doesn’t look good,’" Baker said.

He knows he used heroin that night and believes it was laced with fentanyl.

Baker is a former football player who says he relied on painkillers and fell into drug and alcohol addiction.

"I had met my match and I had been defeated, but I was so detached from reality at that point. That the only thing I knew how to do was to try to run away from this emotional feeling as quickly as I could. So in 24 hours from being out of the hospital, I was back to getting high," he said.

After waking up from a week-long coma, Baker started an up-and-down months-long journey to sobriety. He moved from Massachusetts to Arizona where his life changed and he ultimately got clean.

"I stopped searching that as my solution, you know, drugs, alcohol, when I found true purpose for my pain," he said.

MORE: Arizona drug busts: Some of our most recent, biggest seizures

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Nick Baker

The fentanyl crisis, so far

How effective is fentanyl? Fifty to 100 times stronger than morphine.

Illegally manufactured fentanyl falls under the category of synthetic opioids and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says two milligrams is considered a lethal dose depending on one’s body size and tolerance.

Between 2020 and 2021, synthetic opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. increased 23%, going from 57,834 to 71,238. In Arizona at the same time period, synthetic opioid overdose deaths rose from 1,519 to 1,791.

65% of those deaths happened in Maricopa County over those two years, totaling 2,170.

Between 2020 and 2021, synthetic opioid overdose deaths in Arizona increased.

Fentanyl is ‘headed all over the place’

"So this year, we’re already at over 1,200 pounds of fentanyl seized," said Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) Sgt. Jesus Gastelum.

That's already surpassed the 2021 total of 830 pounds.

Constant traffic stops are leading to mounds of fentanyl pills hidden in bags, suitcases or behind car parts.

"The larger quantities, we notice them on the I-10 in the Tucson area or the Casa Grande or the area in between there," Gastelum said.

The drugs are mainly being trafficked across the border from Mexico, he says, and Arizona is not the only destination.

"They’re headed all over the place. They can be headed here from the border all the way to Phoenix, or they can be headed from here to Colorado or to Chicago. Anywhere," Gastelum said.

DPS is seizing more fentanyl than ever despite the department’s sworn personnel being short by at least 315. The largest shortage since 2018.

Arizona Department of Public Safety Sgt. Jesus Gastelum.

Why test strips?

"People that are going out doing recreational cocaine on the weekend or buying that Xanax or buying that one Percocet, a simple swab can show you that, ‘Hey, if you’re completely naive to opiates, that this is going to stop your heart and kill you,’" Baker warned.

He volunteers with the Aris Foundation, a nonprofit organization helping the homeless. The work starts in a warehouse and on Tuesday nights, his team will pass out clothes, toiletries and other resources.

Baker is also trying to keep unsheltered people alive, passing out Narcan and fentanyl test strips.

While Narcan reverses an opioid overdose, fentanyl test strips can detect contamination in a substance, so one doesn’t accidentally take it. However, fentanyl test strips have only been legal in Arizona since September 2021.

Baker has been working with the state’s department of health services to get batches of fentanyl test strips consistently.

"If we don’t utilize those resources, then the problem’s only going to get worse," he said.

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Fentanyl drug bust

A spike in testing potentially laced drugs

Adrian Pittington is the lab manager at Sonictest Labs where we were able to see how the test strips work.

"A line being there most of the time means negative on almost every test I’ve seen. A line being absent means positive," he said.

In just minutes, we were able to determine a sample of oxycodone is fentanyl free.

The lab manager says testing for fentanyl is something many employers are requesting these days.

"Probably the most surprising change was all of a sudden everybody started asking me to test for fentanyl," Pittington said.

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Fentanyl test strip

What's next?

Baker continues to request more test strips and Narcan to keep those battling addiction alive, so he can make a life-changing connection.

"How do we get more people to have a conversation? Really simple, right? Have a conversation," he remarked.

So far, the state has distributed test strips to six counties: Pima, Coconino, Mohave, Cochise, Navajo and Yavapai. Maricopa County Public Health is currently working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for funding to make the test strips widely available in Arizona's most populous county.

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